LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If University of Louisville fans want to send thank you notes to some of the people most responsible for the school's rise to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which it will celebrate on July 1 with a downtown event complete with mascots from all the league's teams, here's just a beginning to the list. :
1. Tom Jurich. Both over time, and during the 10-day period in 2012 when he had to sell the university to the ACC in a high-stakes race to what proved to be the final spot in a "big five" conference, Jurich has been U of L's MVP. Many other people on this list worked to supplement or support his efforts, but Jurich has been the point man, and his overall vision for the department has been its driving force since he took over in 1997. The U of L athletic budget for 1997-98 projected $17.6 million in revenue. In the athletic season just ended, U of L operated on a budget of $77.2 million. Jurich oversaw the addition of women's sports, the bolstering of athletic academic advising, the growth of the football program to a Bowl Championship Series level, the rejuvenation of men's basketball, the building of a new playing facility for every sport, the ascension of programs like baseball, soccer and women's basketball to national championship competition plus a major expansion of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and the move of men's and women's basketball from Freedom Hall to the KFC Yum! Center downtown.
To do this, he identified and encouraged major donors in a number of sports at the university, and managed to wed the community's passion for sports to its support of the school in ways it had never been.
2. Rick Pitino. The U of L basketball coach in many ways has become the brand of the school's athletic department. After years of trying to gain the Big East's interest, it was Pitino's presence within the program that helped push the school to the league when it was looking for replacements for Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami. One of the first bits of marketing the ACC did to take advantage of Louisville was to sit Pitino down with Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams for a discussion in a brief promotional video, and it's Pitino's photo that appears as U of L's representative in the ACC's new branding book. The day Jurich landed Pitino at U of L was one of the biggest days in the school's athletic department history in terms of remaking itself. 3. Owsley Brown Frazier. It has been a shame that the longtime Louisville philanthropist hasn't been around to see some of the fruits of his many efforts on behalf of the university and its athletic program. Frazier was one of the first people in Louisville that Jurich sought out, His knowledge of the Louisville landscape was a valuable tool Jurich used as he looked to motivate donors in areas where they might help, and Frazier's passion for sports outside the limelight brought benefits that are still being felt. 4. James Ramsey. The U of L president gets quite a bit of heat, because of scandals that have hit various university departments and because some say the school has become "too big" a player in local business. But step back from that for a moment. To be a university in the state of Kentucky is, in some ways, to eat or be eaten. State appropriations for higher education have declined for more than a decade. If universities aren't seeking ways to overcome that loss of revenue, and add other money to keep moving forward, they're going to fail. Ramsey has pulled out all the stops to keep Jurich. He stood firm when he could have let Pitino go amid scandal, and the university reaped the rewards.
But in approaching the ACC, U of L was trying to step into a new academic ballpark. Ramsey had to sell the school's trajectory, more than its current status, something he was able to do. Now, he hopes the school can further reap the academic benefits of its new associations. A few numbers. During Ramsey's U of L tenure, which began officially in 2002, U of L's overall graduation rate has risen from 33 percent to 53.5, it's campus population has increased from 2,363 to nearly 5,000 and its endowment has grown from $479 million to $825 million. The amount it spends on research has grown from $81 million to $186 million and the number of patent applications from its professors and researchers has grown from 259 to 1,500. The school has about $400 million worth of capital construction projects underway on its Belknap Campus. Only about $28 million of that is athletics construction. All of these played a role in U of L's new conference home.
5. Charlie Strong. With the football program mired in the depths it experienced after a 4-8 season in 2009, the athletic department wasn't likely to draw the interest of anyone unless that changed. Conference realignment was driven by football, and U of L needed to become relevant again in a hurry. Charlie Strong made that happen. In the first head-coaching job of his career after almost 20 years of trying, Strong went to a bowl game his first season, and beat Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in his third. That Sugar Bowl victory stamped Louisville's return to prominent football status. It was midway through that season that the ACC made its decision on Louisville, and had the school not righted its ship in that sport, it's hard to see how it could've turned the ACC's head. Strong went on to turn down Tennessee to remain at Louisville after that season, an important decision in cementing the worth of the football job, even if Strong would leave a year later for Texas. Strong rebuilt the foundation of the program, taking it from academic sanctions to the best academic performance in its history, through infrastructure changes he suggested that now are being used throughout the athletic department and even on the academic side at U of L. He only stayed four years, but they were four key years in making the athletic department attractive to the right people. 6. Bill Olsen. There might not have been a U of L football program to revamp had Bill Olsen not been athletic director. The U of L trustees were poised to bump U of L to Division II status in football in the early 1980s, and without Olsen's commitment and creative leadership, the entire course of athletics at the school would've been changed. U of L would've had a first-class basketball program. Denny Crum was in the midst of the greatest run of his Hall of Fame coaching career. But Olsen understood the importance of football in the college athletics landscape. And though he didn't have a great stadium, or even much sustained history to sell, he nonetheless was able to persuade the greatest program builder of his generation, Howard Schnellenberger, to come back to his hometown to save the football program and change the course of athletics forever. In fact, anything good that happens for U of L athletics is very much a product of the work that Denny Crum did as basketball coach in establishing a name for U of L athletics, and of the work that Howard Schnellenberger did in building its modern football program and setting out the vision for the new stadium it eventually built. Though Schnellenberger left rather than compete in Conference USA, that league played a major role in U of L setting itself on the right conference course, and the work all those men did shouldn't be forgotten.
7. Bobby Petrino. It had been a long time since the high-water mark of U of L football history -- winning the Fiesta Bowl in 1991 -- when Petrino arrived as U of L coach for the first time in 2003. He immediately made U of L one of the most exciting offensive teams in the nation. Before U of L made the conference upgrade to the ACC, it had to make the upgrade to the Big East. Petrino's work in the football program helped that to happen. He nearly got the program into a BCS bowl despite being in a non-BCS league in 2004 but a loss at Miami was the team's only blemish. Once into the Big East, Petrino did get the Cards to the Orange Bowl where it beat Wake Forest in January of 2007. Petrino's repeated flirtations with other jobs and his eventual departure after that Orange Bowl win did some damage to the program, but now back for his second tenure at the school, he's hoping he can make his second go-around with conference change as successful as his first, whose Orange Bowl victory took the program from mid-major curiosity to BCS bowl caliber.
8. Jeff Walz. The progress of women's sports at U of L has been a national model, and Walz has been at the forefront of making the most of the new resources Jurich and the university have devoted to raising gender equity standards at the school. In his second season at the school, Walz took a team led by All-American Angel McCoughtry to the NCAA championship game -- the first time a U of L women's team sport had competed for a national title. That team lost to Connecticut (it finished 34-5, and four of those losses were to UConn). In 2013, he did it again, with an unexpected run to the title game before the Cardinals were beaten by UConn again. The year Jurich arrived as athletic director, the budget for women's basketball was just under $600,000. In 2013, the women's basketball program took in $1.5 million in revenue and had a budget of $3.9 million. The success of women's basketball and the growth of sports like field hockey, lacrosse, softball and rowing set the program on a course to move up.
9. The name sponsors. Look at U of L's athletic facilities and you'll see many names: Jim Patterson, the Trager family, Dan Ulmer, Tom Musselman, Ralph Wright, John Schnatter, Sonny Bass and Mason Rudd, I'm probably leaving someone out. But these are the people who stepped in with major gifts to allow U of L's new facilities to be built, and those facilities paved the way for what Jurich and university leaders were able to sell to new conferences. In fact, one of the greatest points of interest for ACC athletic directors is the new Mark and Cindy Lynn Soccer Stadium, which will host U of L's first athletic event as an ACC member in August.
10. U of L fans. Think about this number. In that budget I referred to, the one when Jurich first arrived at U of L, the total revenue from individual and corporate contributions was $4.2 million. In 2013, U of L athletics generated $28.94 million in contributions from individuals and corporations. It may be the single most important number, and the biggest reason U of L has transformed from mid-major success to "big five" member.